22nd-24th August, 2014
On the morning of the 22nd our bus pulled into Mae Sot and we made our way straight to the Thailand-Burma friendship bridge. It was fairly painless, as far as border crossings go. We had already been granted visas so it was just a case of filling out a form and being stamped into the country.
We stepped onto the streets of Myawaddy. Me, Roy, and a Swiss guy were the only caucasian people there so we immediately found ourselves surrounded by some very enthusiastic, betelnut-chewing touts, who all insisted that we would not to find a ride to Mawlamyine for any cheaper than 10,000 kyat each. It is never a good idea to trust the first people who approach you when you enter a new place, so Roy walked off a little bit further away from the main drag to see if he could haggle for something a little cheaper while I looked after our bags.
“I found a ride for 5,000 kyat each,” he said when he returned a few minutes later. “That’s half what they said.”
“Let’s go see,” I said, picking up my backpack.
Roy led me to our ride.
“It’s a bit ‘local’,” he said. “You up for it?”
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
The Swiss guy (Sandro) joined as well and at first it was just the three of us, an elderly lady, and a Burmese couple with three kids. We sat ourselves down on the mats, claiming the spots which would be our living space for the next ten hours. It was more than an hour before we even left because, as usual in Asia, it did not leave until all the spaces had been filled. In the meanwhile we were approached by many random passersby who wanted to greet us between the bars. Roy practiced numbers and some other Burmese words with the mother of the family we were cooped up with, while the father (who was almost certainly drunk) was very insistent that we eat some of his bhajis and biscuits.
When the rest of the spaces were finally filled the driver started up the engine and we began our journey to Mawlamyine.
Roy had spent much of that morning complaining that he was tired because he didn’t manage to get much REM time on the sleeper bus we just caught from Bangkok but, apparently, once he was crammed into the back of a songthaew this was no longer a problem.
It was a rocky journey. The road between Myawaddy and Mawlamyne only runs in one direction (which alternates each day). Even then, it was chaos. We were held up for almost an hour at one point. We were also stopped at least four times by the army who checked our passports and asked us questions about where we were going.
Despite all of this, it was one of the most enjoyable – and most definitely, memorable – journeys I have ever been on. The first half of it was along a narrow road carved into the side of a steep mountain range, and we caught some sights of very beautiful limestone cliffs jutting out from the flatlands below. The locals we were sharing carriage with were very friendly. I began to feel like I was travelling again, after three all-too-comfortable weeks I had just spent in Thailand.
By the time we reached Mawlamyine it was almost evening so we didn’t have time to do much else apart from check-in to a guest house. Most of the landlords turned us down because they were not allowed to accept foreigners so we only had three options, all of which were a bit dingy and overpriced. We ate dinner by the waterfront and discussed what we were going to do with the next day ahead of us.
“There’s a place just south of here which has the worlds’ biggest reclining Buddha,” Roy said, as he scrolled through our copy of Budget Burma.
“How big is it?” I asked.
“About five hundred and sixty feet long.”
“That’s one big fucking Buddha…”
The next morning we woke up early and went to the local bus station to find out how we could reach the big fucking Buddha (also known as Win Sein Taw Ya). We were pointed to a local service running to a nearby village which could drop us off along the way. All of the seats were already taken so I sat upon one of the sacks of corn which had been piled up in the middle of the aisle.
Half an hour later we were dropped off and, after a short walk down the driveway, we found the Buddha. It wasn’t exactly hard to miss.
It’s not the prettiest Buddha I have ever seen, but the scale of it alone was pretty damn impressive and it was definitely worth the trip.
We ventured inside and found that it contained a massive labyrinth of rooms and corridors. Most of them were merely empty space but some were filled with scale models depicting scenes from Buddha’s life.
On our way out Roy spotted a trail of identical Buddha statues lined up along the roadside which seemed to be leading somewhere. A procession of cows and goats were keenly upon the trail, so we realised that it must be something very important and followed them.
We found ourselves being led through a small forest and then up a nearby mountain to where we had a great opportunity to take some photos of the surrounding area.
In the afternoon we went to see a temple in a village nearby called Kyaikmaraw, where the monks were very friendly and keen to practice their English. We couldn’t stay there for very long though because the last bus back to Mawlamyine was at 4 pm.
On our second day in the area we ventured out to Nwa-la-bo Pagoda. We were told by the Lonely Planet that, as it was the weekend, the place would be filled with pilgrims and tuk-tuk rides to the top of the mountain would be available, but when we were dropped off by the bus the driveway was more or less empty. We started upon a gruelling two hour walk up the mountain. It was steep, sweaty, and long, but the higher we reached the better the views became.
When we finally reached the top the resident monk was very surprised to see us. Apparently not many people bother to make the journey during the wet season. We had a look around and took lots of photos of its main feature; a pagoda precariously balanced upon three golden rocks.
After eating lunch, refilling our water bottles, and having a quick rest we began to make our way back. Two men who happened to be riding down the mountain offered us a ride back so we jumped on the back on their motorcycles.
We reached Mawlamyine again in the late afternoon and we had just enough time to stroll around Mahamuni Paya and watch the sun set at Kyaikthanlan Paya, which was a perfect ending to the day.
As usual, more photos can be found on my Flickr account, here.